Many shows start strongly, then grow increasingly tired as they stretch the limits of their concept. Mozart in the Jungle doesn’t have that problem, perhaps because it relies less on concept than on its subject matter: music. By embracing music’s endless variety and the many facets of its world, it continues to find interesting new stories to tell, and does so in a manner as varied and unpredictable as music itself.
An intractable contract dispute leads management to lock out the New York Symphony, leaving the orchestra’s members to get by in other ways. For conductor Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal), that means a spontaneous new gig organizing a concert for opera diva Alessandra (Monica Belluci). For oboist Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke), it means a new gig touring Europe with asshole ‘cello sensation Andrew Walsh (Dermot Mulroney). When Hailey’s job melts down mid-performance, she falls back into Rodrigo’s intoxicating orbit in Venice, where their erratic relationship undergoes further chaotic contortions before sending them back home.
Season three plays out, in fact, as two mini-seasons. The first five episodes take place in Venice and focus on the concert, a storyline which deploys Bellucci to terrific effect as a temperamental manipulator who gives Rodrigo a run for his money in the fiery artist sweepstakes. The second half returns the focus to New York and efforts to bring the lockout to an end, reuniting the symphony. Both sequences are confidently executed, displaying the series’ characteristic stream-of-conscious restlessness, randomly bouncing from comic absurdity to dramatic beauty and back again. But running through it all is the complex core relationship between Hailey and Rodrigo, which Bernal and Kirke pull off with effervescent charm. If this thread possesses the show’s one truly expected angle — a will-they, won’t-they rom-com familiarity — it also provides an anchoring through-line that becomes more interesting the more the show treats Rodrigo as something of a personified metaphor for music. After all, Hailey’s relationship with Rodrigo is just as fraught, flighty, and multifaceted as her relationship with music, the primary source of her frustration, her sense of purpose, her deepest disappointments, and her most transcendently beautiful moments. In this sense, Mozart in the Jungle continues to tap into and skillfully depict the struggles and joys of artistic ambition, in an energetic and addictively unpredictable way.
The complex, unforgettable music of Frank Zappa has long been a formative influence for me, but the documentary Eat That Question (2016) is a reminder that so is Zappa, the person. The film is comprised of numerous interview clips, spanning his storied career from the 1960s to the early 1990s. It’s not entirely sequential, but “conceptual continuity” and careful organization make it feel like a linear narrative, telling the story of Zappa’s life as it reveals his singular personality.
Identifying with Zappa is, on some levels, a troubling thing; at times his attitudes, particularly about women, are questionable at best. But the documentary does a good job of zeroing in on what made Zappa unique, not just as a rock musician, but as a composer, an entertainer, and a thinker. From the very earliest clip — an appearance on The Steve Allen Show, wherein a clean-shaven, shockingly polite Zappa teaches Allen how to play the bicycle — Zappa comes across as someone who sees the world from weird, zany angles. There’s a contrarian streak to his eloquence, and the sense of a celebrity buying into his own bullshit. But he’s also a fiercely intelligent social critic, whose off-the-cuff responses to interview questions are always spirited and entertaining, and sometimes delightfully weird. Both his outlandish humor and deadly serious views on art are the product of a mind that’s sitting off to the side of the world, observing with a mix of baffled amusement and cock-eyed disgust. As the interviews move from his irreverent rock touring days into the 1980s, the humor gets more scathing, particularly during his angry appearances on Crossfire and facing off against the PMRC during Congressional hearings. His concerns about the future effects of right-wing, Reagan Era Republicanism are positively prescient. It culminates in a heartbreaking, late interview, wherein he is clearly losing his battle with cancer — and being defiantly cavalier about it.
Alas, Eat That Question doesn’t always focus on the best of Zappa’s music; the musical segues are sometimes necessarily tied to the interview material, but I could have done with less of the crass mockery of “Dinah-Moe Humm” and “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” and more of Zappa’s intense and fascinating melodic instrumentals. Also, true Zappaphiles will see a lot of material that they’ve seen before from various concert films and videos. But overall it’s a worthwhile compilation of footage, providing insight into the mind of a truly one-of-a-kind artist.
With its latest wild release Breaking Brain (2015), Panzerballett retains its dubious distinction as my favorite band. This complex German jazz-funk-metal quintet refuses to show any signs of jumping the shark after five studio albums; it continues to win my heart by laying down intense, Zappaesque melodies over swinging jazz walks, comical funk grooves, and chugging math-metal intricacy.
If their previous release, Tank Goodness, herky-jerks around with random-seeming rhythmic perversity, Breaking Brain reins in that inaccessible streak a smidge and re-finds a steadier pulse — albeit a polyrhythmic, djent-inspired one. It’s also not as cover-happy as the last several releases. On that score they go way off the map with a deeply weird, comic reinterpreation of “Mah Nà Mah Nà” (here called “Mahna Mahna”) and a scorching rendition of Trilok Gurtu’s “Shunyai.” The only over-familiar cover is a case of self-cannibalization: an even darker, grungier cover of their own cover of Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther,” which is interesting but inessential.
There’s plenty of fresh, inventive, and technically ambitious original material on display, though, from the opening aggresion of “Euroblast” to the heavy jazz-metal of “Der Saxdiktator” and “Frantik Nervesaw Massacre.” My favorite tracks, though, are the dark metallic beats of “Smoochy Borg Funk,” in which a rare four-four time signature is complexified by orchestrated guitar-sax interplay, and the insanely dense “Typewriter II,” which is…well, see for yourself, in a music video so nonsensical it might have been made during the early days of MTV:
Overall, it’s another mindblowing collection from one of the funniest, heaviest, and most technically accomplished bands out there. The fact that a band this bizarre and unique actually exists still makes me a little giddy.
For my money, Animals as Leaders is the best progressive metal band going, and that reputation is only solidified by their latest, The Joy of Motion (2014). I thought Weightless was really good, and their self-titled debut was a masterpiece…but this one is their best release yet. It’s got everything I love about prog-metal: insane technical proficiency, complex polyrhythmic guitar riffs, dazzlingly intricate drumming, and songwriting that feels simultaneously unpredictable and inevitable. It also lacks everything I hate about prog-metal: the throat-wrenching vocals, that unvarying wall-of-sound heaviness, the lack of dynamics and weak-to-nonexistent melody. Guitarists Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes and drummer Matt Garstka find that perfect sweet spot: a heavy, intense foundation that also lets itself breathe, and change, and sing.
There isn’t a dud track here, from the dense, shredding opening of “Kascade” to the chugging outro of “Nephele,” and I have a difficult time deciding which is my favorite track. It might be the cheerful, grooving djent-funk of “Physical Education”:
Or it might be the classical, circular intricacy of “The Woven Web” (and check out the amazing “guitar-percussion” at the 1:30 mark):
Or it could be the explosive “Tooth and Claw” (check out this drum cover by an 18-year-old who may be part-demon — I mean that as a compliment!):
Progressive metal bands are notorious for shredding guitars and tricky palm-mutered guitar chord rhythms, but Animals as Leaders is too restless to over-rely on those tools. They blend in other styles (jazz, funk, classical) and other instrumentations (keyboards, acoustic guitars). Their compositions are technically accomplished, but also highly melodic. The Joy of Motion is the best display of their sensibility yet, and has catapulted them from being a promising prog-metal staple right onto my Favorite Bands List. Really impressive stuff.
The drawback to reviewing virtually everything: it’s almost inevitable you’ll fall behind. So far, the blog hasn’t been as verbose as usual in 2014, which I chalk up to a combination of day job exhaustion, writing depression, and, well, marathoning the increasingly addictive final three seasons of The Shield. (Holy shit, guys…but more on that in a later post.)
This doesn’t mean stuff hasn’t been happening, of course, but the idea of catching up with my usual pathological completism is just too daunting. So, in the interest of catching up, I’m purging the backlog in one massive post.
I’m still collecting comic books, although lately I’ve scaled back my pull list for financial reasons. The Marvel universe continues to dominate, with Captain Marvel, Daredevil, and especially Hawkeye continuing as favorites. I’m also quite excited about the new Ms. Marvel, penned by G. Willow Wilson; the first issue, featuring Marvel’s first Muslim superhero, was superb. The new Black Widow solo book is also promising, gorgeously illustrated by Phil Noto. I’ve pretty much dropped all the Avengers and X-Men team books, which have fantastic art but feel almost universally incoherent to me, mainly by cramming in too many characters at the expensive of focused story-telling.
I’m also keeping up with a few independent titles: Greg Rucka’s darkly futurismic Lazarus, Ed Brubaker’s period spy series Velvet, and Matt Fraction’s hilarious Sex Criminals. The latter is easily the best of the three; Fraction takes his Hawkeye sense of humor and pushes it in playfully clever new adult directions, in a refreshingly sex-positive manner. All three, though, are worth supporting.
A major highlight of the year so far was my first rock concert in, like, seven years – wait, what? Two Thursdays ago, at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles, I introduced some friends of mine to two of my favorite bands: miRthkon and Secret Chiefs 3. Wow, what an awesome show! miRthkon raised the energy of the room brilliantly with their inimitable brand of avant-garde genre fusion: a blistering rock show infused with funk, jazz, and metal. Then Secret Chief 3 came out and played for nearly two hours, an ecletic mix of tunes reaching back through their amazing catalogue of metal, surf rock, cinema soundtrack, techno, and Middle Eastern music. Both bands were amazing live; at times I felt they were on some other planet, grooving in impossible time signatures. It took a full day for my ears to stop ringing, but it was worth it. Great show! And hey look, here’s a clip of SC3 from that very show (the tune is “Vajra”):
I’ve also added some new albums to my collection:
Vasaraasia (2000), Alamaailman Vasarat: An early album from this uniquely crazy Finnish band – their name translates to “Hammers of the Underworld” – with an otherworldly chamber music feel heavy on low end and unusual orchestration (saxes, cellos, and horns). Entertaining stuff.
The Quantum Hack Code (2012), Amogh Symphony: Inventive, djent-metally concept album, its pieces tied together with science fiction narration, replete with the requisite factory-default “soothing female” voice. The story is nonsense, but the music is interesting and different.
Swarm (2014), Atomic Ape: I just got this, but I’m very excited about it, a new project featuring Estradasphere guitarist Jason Schimmel. All-instrumental jazz with a quirky, energetic, Middle Eastern vibe to it. Instantly likeable.
Sing-Along Songs for the Damned & Delirious (2009), Diablo Swing Orchestra: An earlier album of “swing-metal” from this group, which hooked me with their more recent Pandora’s Pinata. Great stuff.
You Must Be This Tall (2013), Mike Keneally: Keneally’s stuff usually takes several listens to win me over, but I liked this one almost immediately, even though its songs struck me as…deliberately uncatchy? For me, his best since Dancing; I usually have to describe Keneally’s work by referencing Steely Dan, XTC, and Zappa, but at this point it’s all just sounding distinctly Keneallian to me. An unjustly overlooked rock composer.
Lingua Franca (2013), T.R.A.M.: Is this “djazz?” This EP is a side project of Animals as Leaders’ brilliant guitarist Tosin Abasi. An improvisation-friendly blend of djent metal, modern jazz, and world music, very interesting stuff.
Our PlayStation 3 is pretty much our one-stop shop for home entertainment these days. Jenn and I have been sampling console games together on the weekends lately and we’ve hit on some great ones. The most impressive for me was Tomb Raider, the much-discussed Lara Croft origin story released last year. Fans of the original series find it wanting in some ways, but as someone new to the series, I found it quite satisfying from a gameplay level, and positively immersive as video-game story-telling. Particularly in its opening stages, Tomb Raider is affecting and harrowing, with some real emotional weight to its survival story. In the end it relies too much on high-bodycount, third-person gunplay, and probably borrows too much from the Uncharted series. But overall it’s the kind of cinematic story-telling game I’d like to more often from the industry.
Less enthralling to me was Skyrim, which struck me as a console variation on World of Warcraft. Its world is gorgeously designed and it’s lavishly produced, and it is fun and robust, accommodating many play styles. But I found it less-than-addictive, for some reason; maybe my WoW-style itch has been scratched already? I suspect, on the other hand, that it will strikes others as superior to WoW, with its real-time combat, striking visuals, and its entirely voice-acted character interactions.
Finally, there’s Borderlands 2, which is also analogous to WoW in some ways: it’s got classes, leveling up, weapon upgrades, and an identical quest system. But Borderlands 2 is wild, stupid first-person shooter fun with an in-your-face, Tarantino-like sensibility and a great sense of humor. We’ve had a blast playing this in split-screen, co-op mode and so far our only complaint is that the missions run long and the saving system is confusing. Other than that, though, thumbs up.
I’ve been in a bleak place with writing lately, but I’m hanging in there, with the help of Jenn and my awesome local writing group, the Freeway Dragons. A new short story is making the rounds, and February has seen the start of a new novel project, a corporate espionage fantasy with the working title Ubiquity, Ltd. It’s still early, but so far the new book feels like a total freaking mess. But at least I’m putting words down – 12,000 of them so far – and sometimes that’s the only part of this business you can control. So I’m hanging in there!
It’s been a great couple months for new heavy rotation music for me. On the heels of new Schizofrantik and Secret Chiefs 3 albums comes the latest full-length miRthkon release, Snack(S) (2013). Like their earlier Vehicle, Snack(S) has taken up near-permanent residence in my car’s CD player lately, quickly becoming one of my favorite all-time albums.
The miRthkon website coins the phrase “chambercore,” and it’s an apt label for the band: this is pretty much hardcore chamber music. Even when they’re playing a conventional rock groove, there’s classical precision to the complex arrangement and execution. The standard rock band foundation — guitar, bass, and drums — is adept at executing a wide array of guitar-based styles (funk, prog-rock, djent-metal, and more). Layered over that core is a woodwind section that punches things up with intensely complicated melodies and textures. The resulting mash-up is one of a kind: part jam band, part comedy troupe, part experimental European classical ensemble. It’s magically weird and consistently surprising.
I’m finding the album absurdly addictive, from the spastic opening riffs of “Qxp-13 Space Modulator” to the heavy bluesy exit of “Fairies Wear Boots.” It’s probably even more Zappaesque than Vehicle, with a number of experimental classical-ish pieces, but the standout tunes for me tend to mix the avant-garde with the accessible. The angry political funk of “Hapax Legomena” is an outstanding example miRthkon’s unique brand of organized chaos. I’m also insanely fond of “Snacks(S) – The Song!,” a brilliant, rhythmically complex track that sounds like an unlikely collaboration between Meshuggah and Frank Zappa. If those two tunes don’t hook you, the rest of the album will probably be too weird; if they do, though, move on to “Eat a Bag of DiX,” “The Cascades,” and…well, there’s really not a bad track here. I freaking love this album; seriously, the existence of miRthkon fills me with a cackling glee many would find off-putting. Be adventurous, check them out!
Secret Chiefs 3 has long been one of my favorite bands — in fact, it held the crown for years. Their latest, much anticipated release, Book of Souls: Folio A (2013), doesn’t quite measure up to their absolute best (still, for me, Book M and Book of Horizons), but it’s nonetheless a worthy addition to their impressive body of work.
If I found it disappointing at all, it’s only because it lacks the infectiousness of some their earlier work. From the awkward, lurching march of “Balance of the 19” to the rhythmic complexities of “Tristrya,” this album deploys the usual SC3 bag of tricks: traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation, odd meters, chugging heavy guitars, smidges of surfer and techno vibe, and an intricate, carefully orchestrated sound. It even reaches back to the style of early albums by separating its longer numbers with Zappaesque interstitial pieces, which serve as quirkily comedic connective tissue.
The better tracks on this album, for me, have the feel of cinema soundtrack — “Potestes Clavium,” “Scorched Earth Saturnalia,” “Tristrya,” and “La Chanson de Jacky” (a zany spaghetti western featuring vivavious Mike Patton vocals). My favorite cut, though, is “Drive,” an eerily beautiful piece of groovy, dark atmosphere. Nobody makes music quite like these guys, and even if this isn’t my favorite compilation, it certainly does nothing to sully their reputation. More great stuff from a remarkably consistent group.
Here’s a sample, taking a classic horror movie theme and giving it a sinister New Wave treatment:
Usually it takes me a month or so to feel comfortable reviewing a new album, but since I’ve been listening to The Knight on the Shark (2013) incessantly since it was released last week, I’m making an exception. I loved the previous Schizofrantik album, Oddities, and I’m happy to report that this is a spectacular follow-up.
This German group’s distinctive sound is an unexpected and intense blend of styles, including funk, djent, jazz, metal, and progressive, and like Oddities you can hear snippets of influence from bands like King Crimson, Mr. Bungle, and Primus. They also continue to be rhythmically complex, if not perverse: dropping in extra beats, layering rhythms atop one another, and generally keeping the listener unbalanced. My favorite tracks here tend to be the more complicated ones, like the opening track, “The Knight on the Shark Beside the Ship Which is Not Sunken Yet,” a disorienting Zappaesque epic full of twisty melodies and unpredictable changes of pace and style. Also impressive is “Psychic Scars,” an infectious composition of dark passages and intricate, sinister guitar interplay which opens moodily before accelerating into an absurdly intense stretch of polyrhythmic djent-funk. But to me the highlight is “Nazis on LSD,” a mad blend of intense prog metal that sounds terrifyingly like its title.
Perhaps moreso than Oddities, this album makes concessions to rhythmic accessibility. “The Human Slaughter Tango” mashes up groovy beats and macabre power chords before spinning incongruously into a traditional accordion solo. The cheerful lope of “Marching Through the Meadow” and the introspective guitar showcase “Thanx Dog” are practically conventional compared to some of the other tracks. They have their charms, but I prefer the crazier stuff.
Overall it’s a diverse and surprising collection, and I’m kind of hopelessly hooked on it. Below is the video for “Liquid Light,” which is a pretty great example of Schizofrantik’s various sensibilities. Awesome stuff that I expect will remain in my heavy rotation for a long time.
Three new albums have been keeping me company during my commutes this month; particularly useful for those nights when the interminable 405 construction has left me stranded in a traffic jam at 10:30pm!
I’ve been meaning to check out Diablo Swing Orchestra for a while now, and I’m glad I finally did. My first experience with them is the aptly named Pandora’s Pinata (2012), and it’s a delightfully inventive explosion of diverse styles, from heavy metal to Latin to ska to classical to swing. The vocals are a weird blend of rock, jazz, Broadway musical, and opera, and the standard rock group orchestration is fleshed out by horn and string arrangements. It’s one of those albums that keeps you off-balance, each song an unexpected left turn from the last. Impressive stuff, right up my alley.
For some reason, Lost World Band’s Sound Source (2009) is only $1.99 on iTunes. This Russian ensemble feels like it time-travelled to the 21st century from the mid-seventies, old school progressive rock in the vein of, say, early Genesis, Jethro Tull, or Yes. All instrumental, it has a classic rock sensibility, but adds melodic flutes and violins that give it some postmodern classical feel. I quite like this, and at the price, it’s great value for the money.
One of the more artful djent bands, TesseracT released its first album in an instrumental-only version that I found very agreeable: an intense blend of heavy riffs and melodic compositions, characterized by chugging palm-muted guitar chords and polyrhythmic funk-metal drumming. I bought the deluxe edition of their new album, Altered State (2013), which is basically the same album twice: one with vocals, one instrumental. Unsurprisingly, I prefer the non-vocal version. The vocals aren’t bad, actually: more textural and melodic than the guttural screaming typical of this kind of prog-metal. But to me it also conventionalizes the sound and distracts from the rhythmic complexity. Either way, it’s a rich and accomplished collection.
Here’s the latest music update, some recent album purchases I’ve been breaking in over the past few months:
Probably my most strange and interesting recent find is the Finnish group Alamaailmann Vasarat. They blend their unique orchestration — keyboards, two cellos, saxes, horns, and drums — into an intriguing mix of prog rock, jazz, and world music, very heavy on low end. I found their 2009 release Huuro Kolkko a highly listenable and interesting collection of instrumentals, like a bizarre distant relation of Secret Chiefs 3. Great stuff; will definitely check out more of their albums.
Also fun is another new band, to me: Consider the Source, which has a more traditional lineup (guitar, drums, bass) but a unique sound. Their 2009 release Are You Watching Closely? is an accomplished mix of progressive rock with a jazz, Middle Eastern, funk, and jam band sensibilities. Some tracks here work better for me than others; the opener (below), “Moisturize the Situation,” is definitely a standout. A nice addition.
The next two albums are from old friends revisited. My second Marco Minnemann sampler, The Green Mindbomb (1998) is a fantastic showcase for his sick drumming skills (see below for an amazing example). As a composer he definitely strikes me as a descendent of Zappa, and shares a sensibility with sometime collaborator Mike Keneally: a difficult to classify blend of rock and jazz influences. The focus here is clearly on instrumental virtuosity, and it’s got plenty of that on display, especially on the drums. This album is pretty great.
Finally, I fleshed out my Fugazi collection with Repeater + 3 Songs (1990). Every now and then I like their raw, stripped down rock sound, which in my ears falls somewhere between punk and grunge. I think this collection holds up nicely with the other Fugazi compilations in my collection, 13 Songs, In on the Kill Taker and Steady Diet of Nothing. No wrong steps for me in this bunch.
Over the past several months, I’ve fleshed out my music library with a bunch of new albums. Some of them have merely added more of the same to the randomizer, but a few have gone into heavy rotation. Here are some mini-reviews:
Hello My Name Is (2011), Angelspit. The latest in a long line of albums from the prolific Australian techno-metal band. Heavy, mechanical, energetic, relentless. Sounds a lot like most of their other releases, none of which have hooked me quite the way Krankhaus did. Okay.
Weightless (2011), Animals as Leaders. The sophomore follow-up to one of my favorite heavy progressive metal albums, Weightless is an impressive technical showcase for guitarists Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes, and drummer Navene Koperweis. Lacks the first release’s magic, but if you liked the fusion of djent metal and jazz on their debut, there’s more to like here.
Portal 2: Songs to Test By, Aperture Science Psychoacoustics Laboratory(2012). If you’re looking for an instrumental soundtrack perfect for writing science fiction stories, look no further. Spectacular, dark electronica crossed with moody Angelo Badalamentian atmosphere that perfectly conjures the somewhat sinister puzzle-solving sense of wonder of the video game series. Tons of material on three albums here, with great song titles like “The Future Starts With You,” “Love as a Construct,” “You Are Not a Part of the Control Group,” and “Bombs for Throwing at You.” Fun and evocative, very highly recommended.
The Stewart Copeland Anthology (2007), Stewart Copeland. I was trying to find another Copeland release that captured the 1980s nostalgia vibe I got from The Rhythmatist. This release comes close, although it’s kind of uneven, mixing studio cuts and live performances from the various film and TV projects Copeland has worked on over the years. Starts infectiously but loses momentum as the focus shifts toward more atmospheric soundtrack-y stuff.
Ministry of Kultur (2011), Kultur Shock. Another enjoyably gruff and groovy release from this Seattle group, mashing up rock, punk, rockabilly, and a unique Balkan sound, its traditional rock lineup given additional texture with violins and woodwinds. If you like the video below, you’ll probably want to check out more of their stuff.
Felix Lehrmann’s Rimjob (2011), Felix Lehrmann. A jazz-rock fusion project from young German drummer Felix Lehrmann. I’m more impressed with the playing here than the composing; the pieces seem organized primarily to set up solos. That said, they’re great solos, and some of the tracks come together impressively. Not heavy rotation for me, but not bad.
Bizarre Rejection (2010), Felix Martin. Because no blog post can have enough musicians named Felix in it…Felix Martin is a pretty great guitarist, whose quirky sound mixes jazz, rock, and metal. None of the tunes of this album nailed it for me quite the way the below video did, but it’s a welcome addition to the collection.
Oddities (2011), Schizofrantik. Easily my favorite new find; there just can’t be enough German jazz-metal to keep me happy. Schizofrantik cites as its influences Primus, Frank Zappa, Mr. Bungle, and King Crimson, and Oddities delivers on that ambitious promise brilliantly. Schizofrantik is one of those delightfully, deliberately weird groups that makes wacky tonal and rhythmic — especially rhythmic — decisions, like doing a funk groove in 13/8. (How is it possible to be funky in thirteen? They manage it!) Not mentioned in the influences is something of a djentish, prog-metal sound which comes out in epic tracks like “Red Dragon in a Moebius Strip” and “Nerds Don’t Smoke.” I love this album, even when it’s making perverse choices that don’t quite work for me. Couldn’t stop listening to it for nearly two months. (Did I mention Panzerballett guitarist Jan Zehrfeld sits in on this album? Bonus!)
Schizofrantik Live (2008), Schizofrantik. Hungry for more after Oddities, I grabbed the only other Schizofrantik release available here in the States. I’m usually not a huge fan of live albums; I tend to prefer the pristine, polished studio versions. But this is still worth a listen, if only for a glimpse at some earlier compositions. Sadly, based on the ambient noise, this show sounds like it was played in front of about twenty people. I guess this band is a little too weird even for Germans. I love it, though!
Naught (2011), Stolen Babies. This band’s first album, There Be Squabbles Ahead, may be the perfect postmodern rock album for me — an inventive, theatrical descendant of Oingo Boingo’s dark blend of punk, funk, ska, and New Wave. Naught is their follow-up, and while it lacks the seamless mix of Squabbles, it’s a worthy and diverse follow-up. Very cool band more people should know about. Check this out, from the earlier album:
Oddfellows (2013), Tomahawk. Alternative rock supergroup Tomahawk — featuring former members of Faith No More, Helmet, and The Jesus Lizard — has always felt like an interesting kludge, a grungy, jangly rockabilly mix revolving around Mike Patton’s inimitable, dramatic vocals. Oddfellows brings in Patton’s long-time collaborator Trevor Dunn on bass, and the result is a more coherent album, which also feels a little less interesting. I’m still wrapping my ears around this one, but so far it’s striking me as a lesser entry. That said, I wonder if the uninitiated will prefer it to their earlier work. Some good tracks here but the jury’s still out.
X (2012), Tribal Tech. One of the things I like about this band is it reminds me of my playing days; I’d like to think that had the guys I used to jam with kept playing together, we might’ve ended up sounding a little like Tribal Tech. X is, like the band’s other albums, loosely structured jazz-funk improvisation. As such it’s a little indulgent, but the players have serious chops, and most the tracks here are both involved and infectious. Not quite as good as Rocket Science, but still excellent.
As a neophyte to the musical, I went into Les Misérables (2012) knowing only that its title translates from French into “The Miserable.” It’s an apt title; after three hours of filthy close-ups of oppressed people singing, I came out of the theater feeling pretty miserable.
The story is epic, though, covering a few decades of history in France during the 1800s. The focal point character is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner released after nineteen years of hard labor for a minor infraction. Life as a free man proves almost as tough as slavery, though, which leads him to a desperate criminal act. When, for no reason, he’s unexpectedly forgiven his crime by a kindly religious man, Valjean vows to turn his life around — creating a new identity for himself with his stolen riches to help others. He takes pity on a poor worker named Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who’s ejected from his factory and forced into prostitution in a struggle to support her faraway daughter Cosette (who grows up to be Amanda Seyfried). Valjean’s attempts to help Fantine and Cosette are complicated at every turn by the pathologically lawful Javert (Russell Crowe)…and later, by greater events of history.
Whether or not you enjoy Les Misérables — closer to an opera than a musical, really — depends heavily on how much you enjoy the music. It will surprise nobody to hear that this music isn’t for me. Which isn’t to say the performers are poor; to me, anyway, the singing was effective: generally not theater-class, but close enough for rock ‘n’ roll. Anne Hathaway’s performance stands out. I did feel there was an imbalance between the vocal levels and the backing music; the orchestration takes a major back seat to the singing, which draws attention to the actor’s breaths and sniffles too much, and actually makes vastly dissimilar songs feel tonally identical at times.
But my main problem with the film was that there was no magic to it. I’m no expert on musicals, but when they work for me in the theater, there’s something special about how the stagecraft conjures cool effects — often through absence or through implication. This film version leaves nothing to the imagination. It’s full verisimilitude: every grimy pore and snotty nostril, every bloody wound and sewage-smeared face on display. (It makes the same mistake as Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, making everything explicit, reveling in its blood and guts…and sewage.) And while it leverages an impressive budget on sets, the sum is less than its parts; for all the epic scope of the piece, most of it is visually uninteresting: close-ups on singing faces, often without any context, without the artful mise-en-scène a well produced stage production will give you.
Reactions to this movie will vary wildly, of course, I think based on how invested you are in the source material. We were in a full theater that burst into applause at the end. To me, though, it was an extremely long, tonally monotonous slog — an impressive but relentlessly bleak story, nicely performed but not particularly well told.